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Ugo Paulon 20
Courtesy of Ugo Paulon

The Bella Hadid-approved label making puffed-up heels for deviant wearers

Puffed up and full of purpose, London brand Ugo Paulon has stomped onto the scene with its bulbous 3D heels and a fierce commitment to up-cycling

Ugo Paulon shoes are like little sculptures for your feet – to be admired like art, and to encourage new ways of thinking. Puffed up and plush mules, flared heels, and alluringly elongated sandals with creeping vine-like straps, stamped with swirls and naturalistic prints in earthy and volcanic colours. The 3D designs feel both primaeval and of the future – a natural phenomenon, or a millennia-old obelisk that’s original name has been lost to the annals of history. ‘Ugo Paulon’ as a name itself brings to mind the prehistoric or alien – but really, it originates from the merging of different eBay sellers’ usernames from whom designer Elise bought the first vintage shoes she upcycled from.

The Danish, London-based designer began her business from her home in 2020, first by buying vintage shoes to upcycle herself – re-dyeing fabric, manipulating textiles – and testing how much she could do with very little. As Ugo Paulon grew into a business, she has collaborated with the likes of Ottolinger, Ronan McKenzie, and Feben, and enveloped the feet of Shygirl, Paloma Elsesser, Bella Hadid, and Isamaya Ffrench.

“Deviant female figures are always inspiring to me,” says Elise, “I love The C Word podcast by Lena Dunham and Alissa Bennett. They go through history and pop culture’s tendency to label and ostracise ‘crazy’ women – a great inspo resource for me!” When we chat, we talk at length about craft books from the 70s and the eccentric, stylish women of the time as reference points. I suggest Little Edie of Grey Gardens as a woman who could work a Momber Mule – in the padded, knotted Bumblebee variant. The dream customer though, is anyone “who will love them enough to wear them over and over and over”. As everything ever created returns to the earth, it’s sexy, sustainable footwear everlasting. 

Below, we catch up about the sustainable footwear frontier, defying fashion industry timelines, and her enduring love affair with eBay.

Hi Elise! What first inspired your move into footwear?

Elise: I'm from Copenhagen and studied fashion design there, and I've lived in London for ten years. I'd been working in ready-to-wear, and I'd done a little bit of freelance work in shoes. I had been working at Baserange for five years when I decided to seek out other possibilities. Like a lot of people, it wasn't until COVID that I really was forced to consider what I would do next. I’d just gone freelance and suddenly, no work. The break gave me more perspective – losing out forces you to think differently. Upcycling was this physical way of getting my thoughts out that felt very freeing.

So was Ugo Paulon initially a business venture, or more a creative outlet?

Elise: I definitely saw it more as an experiment in creative expression, as well as a challenge to myself. I had this fundamental idea, this yearning, to make a desirable product with as few virgin materials as possible. I was feeling disempowered and uninspired working with garments. Baserange really strives to be sustainable and is incredibly impressive, but more widely, and like a lot of people in the industry, I was confronted by the waste - in factories, landfills, consumer consumption. That conversation has only gotten more urgent.

It's hard when you're starting out with sustainability as a driving force, which I came up against when I really began to pursue the business. There are ways manufacturers are used to doing things and scales of production. There is no shortcut – especially in an industry as traditional as footwear. I have been lucky to find the right people. In Italy, I’ve seen the motivation to be innovative and move it forward – they know there's a market for that. You have to find your people. And it just so happens my factory in Milan has women all at the top!

“It's hard when you're starting out with sustainability as a driving force, which I came up against when I really began to pursue the business” - Elise

Tell me about those first eBay ventures that became a Ugo Paulon shoe.

Elise: I just love the high-low feeling I get on eBay and Vinted. I’ve found Miu Miu kitten heels for £10, and then I’ve found River Island and Nine West shoes from the 90s and 00s that are just incredible quality. The high street had much more high-quality manufacturers and suppliers. You can see that change in the secondhand stores now. We’re overrun with items that are 100 per cent polyester, but find something from M&S’s label St. Michael from the 90s and it's 100 per cent silk or leather. Their silk suits! 

eBay is my longest love affair – it's where I buy all my clothes. And Vinted feels so personal – I’m very inspired by the idea of bringing things back into the population again and elevating something other people think is trash. I've recently bought some noughties and 90s Miu Miu bags, with lots of embellishments. I love to buy 90s cashmere for myself.

How many shoes have you sourced and upcycled over the years?

Elise: I've found around 500 pairs of shoes over the years – some of those are still in the back of my studio, and I take them out sometimes to prototype and use as references. I’ve handmade about 100 upcycled pairs. I'll still do one offs and customs sometimes, but once you have a business you can get sucked into the admin and management. It's nice to be tactile.

Your designs have leaned into summery aesthetics. Do you intend Ugo Paulon to transcend the seasons as you grow?

Elise: I showed Pre-Spring 24 in Paris in June, and that’s out in November. I want to really resist the seasonal thinking of the fashion industry. My shoes are fun, and summery with the open toe, but customers are wearing them with tights and socks. I love that. I'm going to do more continuous imagery that complements more seasons, to show how the shoes can be worn throughout the year outside of the summery sensibilities. It's in the storytelling and styling, and seeing the value in wearing your pieces a lot in various contexts.

I understand the industry's focus on seasons. Retailers need seasons to allocate budgets, but I’d love to avoid it where possible. I’d have a small base collection of signature styles, and bring in new colours and textures here and there. I think I can do this by keeping up the direct to consumer contact. You always sell your own product best, and it’s the best way of building a community and loyal base.

What is it about the bulbous shape – like your signature Momber Mule – that appeals to you?

Elise: It was a way to really make textures and prints come out three-dimensional. I was experimenting in making things flattering in shapes not usually described as such. And the surface area was something I could do easily with things I had in the house. 

What’s the continuous narrative thread amid the textures, shapes, and prints?

Elise: It’s a continuous exploration of reclaimed fabrics and shapes I developed early on. 3D design brings the story out more – it’s playful in how it reaches out to you. The swirl has been part of a long process with an amazing jeweller called Freya Douglas Ferguson [who has worked with KNWLS and Gareth Wrighton] to create the trimmed swirl in recycled resin. It adds more dimension, another expression of the story. 

We started out with a lot of different prints, but I’m distilling them down. It's also hard to find enough reclaimed plain white fabric to print on! That naturally evolves the designs. I’ve recently found more textured fabric that I’m excited to use. Materials have to have that little something special for me. I want to work with shapes more too – there's the voluminous look people love, but I also want to do more of the strappy, sculptural designs.

When your core DNA interpolates deadstock materials, unique and small productions, is scale the biggest challenge? Or the expectation of purpose?

Elise: When you're a small brand, you feel both that responsibility and expectation for you to start out committing to sustainability. I think that’s a good thing. But we're also doing the least environmental exploitation. The bigger, high-end brands aren't met with those same demands. They can hide behind the old ways.

I see that as a challenge and sensibility to live by. There's so much material out there, but we just haven't figured out how to make it as accessible. There are so many young designers who want to establish a structure that allows for big scale post consumer upcycling, but for now brands have to make their own little ecosystem. I think it’s great in ways – lots of innovation comes from those worlds, but if we industrialised it, it could be a different story. It's the only way to go, I think. And I want to do it right from the start.

I find exploring the full potential of materials exciting. In Italy, they really utilise every source material, especially leather, because it's a luxury material. The low waste levels are impressive. I source fabrics from warehouses in London and create hand drawn prints with a printer in South London. It allows me to still do small batches, whereas in Italy, minimums for printing are so high. It's 50/50 London and Italy manufacturing. It's more work, but ultimately more control.

“There are so many young designers who want to establish a structure that allows for big scale post consumer upcycling, but for now brands have to make their own little ecosystem” - Elise

Is there a tension that comes with being a sustainable designer and growth?

Elise: I'd like to diversify a bit more, but I'm most conscious of getting the shoes I currently do really right. Really quickly, there can be a demand for bigger collections. I'd prefer to hone a few signature styles. Fashion always wants more, even if they don't sell. It's a false reality. A lot of young designers have a narrative and aesthetic they do well, but become forced into the old school ways of massive shows and big productions to please retailers. But I see more people doing it differently, and taking control with Direct To Consumer. My new belts, coming in November, are a natural progression for the brand.

I love the belts – being one size fits all also speaks to the values of longevity.

Elise: Exactly. And I want to do bags again – I did a few in the beginning. I'm going about it super slow, but I'm thinking of lots of accessory groups in the future.

Where are you looking for inspiration?

Elise: I’ve found the library to be a massive untapped resource. I personally hadn't used it for years, but having a massive bookworm for a daughter opened it up. I found all these wonderful 70s craft books that span so many interesting schools of artisanal craft and textiles. There’s these amazing paper mache books. Some of the pictures are taken with this hard flash in someone’s back garden. I've started to collect them. They resonate with the aesthetic I hold close - the DIY, crafty vibe. 

I have this persona in mind from the books – an artisanal woman in her 60s, with her big necklaces and maximal clothes. I think about if she was to make a pair of fabulous shoes, what would she do? How would she look at materials and combine things? Then I add to that with more technical elements and modern ideals. 

How have you seen the Ugo Paulon customer grow?

Elise: It’s nice to see a range of people from Instagram engaging with the shoes, wearing them in different ways and incorporating them into their own style. There's women in their 50s, there's women into sustainability, high-fashion people. I love doing something I think is fab, and seeing someone else love it just as much. 

What new ways of working are you excited for?

Elise: I hope to show in Paris in January again. In the meantime, I've been working more with leather and suede, and I’m striving to have the most sustainable, gentle leather. This is a battle from within – it’s expensive, but leather is amazing for longevity. I'm always thinking about how I can take something like canvas and linen, which are so natural, and elevate them to a new narrative with embellishment. I want to keep up doing one of a kind shoe-making because I love that it’s so intimate, unperfect in the asymmetry of a human hand. I really want to keep the upcycled elements alive even with factories and suppliers – I'm constantly working towards making everything 100% upcycled. 

I feel liberated and inspired by the challenge of pushing within certain limits to be more creative. You’d think being limited with methods or materials would make your mind smaller, but you get bigger, greater ideas within a tight framework. Anything is possible today, it's just coming up with that great thing that’s harder if you haven’t set any limits.